Adding to the “Sum of the Universe’s Order”

“A complete novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order.” Or so Annie Dillard believes. This is a peculiar metaphysical statement: Creative work makes a difference regardless of audience. How is this possible?

I posed this question in my newsletter a bit ago and received some remarkable responses. Today I’d like to share Liz Olds’ story.

I had a difficult relationship with my mother. There have been times when I hated her, and most times I was at least ambivalent. My feelings about my mother often got in the way of the writing. I feared if I was honest about not liking her, in fact hating her at some points in the memoir, that several things would happen. I was sure my sister would never speak to me again. I feared other people in my family would be upset. My mother was considered a saint by almost everyone, myself apparently the only one who had seen the other, darker side.

But more important, I feared that my feelings of betrayal, dislike, disappointment and hatred would overwhelm me. I feared I would not be able to do the work of writing this essential part of my story.

As I wrote about my mom, I felt a gradual transformation. My mother was a talented, intelligent and interesting person. I have come to believe that she had anxiety and depression which made it difficult for her to meet my needs as a child. I felt myself coming to have respect for her. I began to understand just a little of why everyone who didn’t rely on her to have their needs meant thought she was so cool.

I also began to see the facts about her – she was trapped in a bad marriage with an abusive alcoholic. I think she was often just keeping her head above water.

When she was 57 she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer and died two years later. I had not processed my anger toward her at that time and felt no compunction to help her. Living 1200 miles apart made it easy to justify not participating in her care.

I began writing the memoir about the same time I began a course of therapy to help me with my own mental health issues. My therapist suggested using my writing as part of the work I was doing. I thought less and less about publishing. Writing became healing.

This is where the memoir really takes wings for me. I wrote with an eye to craft as well as healing. I meant to write a publishable memoir, but I also a desired to work out the hatred of my mom. I wrote honestly about the ways she had hurt me and the things I wish had been different. I also wrote about the good things. I wanted the writing to help me understand, to help me grow and change.

After six years of writing, the words I wrote enabled me to forgive my mother. I forgave other people too, in fact the memoir was a font of forgiveness. But forgiving my mom…that was the big deal. Many people in my family tell me I look like my mom, and I have many of the same interests. In forgiving her I feel like I am also forgiving myself for many of the times I haven’t been able to help friends and relatives who needed me.

It doesn’t matter a bit that I haven’t published this book. I’m not saying I don’t want that, of course I do. But it is so much more important that I deeply changed in the process of writing it. I began to know myself better, to understand the things about my thoughts and behaviors that used to baffle me. I realized I had strength and had done more than just survive my family legacy. I had forgiven. No matter what happens with the book in the future, I will always have this.

In our product-driven, results-oriented culture, we like to think creative work gains worth by its impact on an audience. Liz’s story illustrates that who we become for having done the creative work is an equally important “product” with significant “results.” An order of forgiveness is added to the world’s order and this, it seems to me, is of ultimate worth. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


I still welcome testimonials—what’s your experience of your finished creative work still exerting an influence on the world?

If your curious to explore with me a new way of relating to your writing post-completion, I’ll be introducing some of my thoughts and questions at the Loft on October 27: The Launch: Reimagining Publishing with Integrity, Freedom, and Generosity, 1:30pm-4:30pm.  I’d love to see you there!

Also coming up:

October 12, 1:30-3:30: Re-Imagining Prayer with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.

November 9, 1:30-3:30:  Re-Imagining Loss with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.

November 16: Living Revision: The Writer’s Craft as a Practice of Transformation at the Loft Literary Center, 10am-4pm.

December 14, 1:30-3:30Re-Imagining Revision with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.

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